First there was the broadcast TV couch potato and then there was the cable TV channel surfer. Now with the advent of DVRs and online media services like Netflix, the “binge viewer” is reportedly becoming the new normal – and is changing the way producers and advertisers approach the industry in the process.
Marathon or binge viewing – watching more than two or three episodes of the same show in one sitting – has been growing in popularity over the last few years, but Netflix made a definitive statement in 2013 by releasing the entire first season of its new series House of Cards at once.
New viewing data released by Netflix shows that “half of the viewers studied finished a season (up to 22 episodes) within one week.” In the same report Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said most streamers would rather have a season available to them in its entirety and watch at their convenience.
And Netflix isn’t alone in its findings. Vince Gilligan, creator of AMC’s Breaking Bad, credits “catch-up TV” for helping to attract new viewers throughout the series’ run and for helping grow the show’s audience over the course of its five seasons.
Netflix pulls the plug on cable
The Netflix model is a direct threat to premium cable networks such as HBO, Showtime and Starz. Like Netflix, premium cable networks rely solely on subscribers for revenue. But unlike streaming services, Nielsen reports their ratings.
While premium cable networks’ ratings don’t affect advertising revenue, good ratings attract subscribers. As a result, these networks often cancel and renew series based on ratings, just like broadcast and basic cable channels.
In addition to attacking the premium cable model, binge viewing breaks habits that have long supported the traditional broadcast and basic cable television business, which is built on advertising breaks and syndicated reruns.
While binge viewing is ideal for Netflix and Hulu Plus, premium and basic cable networks are forced to emulate the binge-viewing model while operating within the traditional broadcast system.
Cable fights back
Pay TV hasn’t given up. Instead, networks are trying to create television that will be fast paced enough to attract and hold viewers’ attention while also enticing advertisers to help offset costs.
Series such as The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy have seen increases in ratings for each new season, in part due to this scheduling strategy.
Amazon gets hungry for viewers
Online streaming service Amazon Instant Video is also trying to find a solution to compete with Netflix and cable networks, and it’s betting on a combination of binge-viewing and traditional weekly releases to do it.
In a bid to compete with but not copy Netflix, Amazon created a unique launching pad for its original series, Alpha House (as well as its second series, Betas). The online retailer offered the first three episodes of the series for free, hoping to entice viewers to sign up for Amazon Prime Instant Video in order to watch the remaining episodes, which would subsequently be rolled out on a weekly basis.
Similar to Netflix, Amazon has not released the actual ratings for Alpha House or Betas, only stating that Alpha House was Amazon’s “number one most-watched show.” Without the full information and ratings, it’s difficult to determine exactly which model – binge-viewing releases versus a weekly rollout – will be the best option in the long run.
Binge still fringe?
While no one can argue that binge viewing, and in particular Netflix’s original programming strategy, have changed the television industry, the new model is still evolving as networks and other services try to find the best way to balance creative quality with revenue.
Despite our ostensive love of binge-viewing, there are still only so many hours in a day, and regardless of the platform, executives and producers are working to offer viewers what they want: high quality programming at their disposal, while making advertisers, investors and subscribers continue to pay for the product.